After decades of shying away from the tourism limelight, Central Asia is now starting to take advantage of its wealth of national treasures, its off-the-beaten track appeal and its authentic culture. Emily Millett investigates.
Not many people know of the allure and appeal of Central Asia. However, today, as the industry in the five ‘stans’ – as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have become affectionately known – starts to awaken to its incredible potential, tourism in the region is starting to see an upwards trajectory.
In 2013, Kazakhstan received five million visitors and this is expected to grow to eight million by 2024. And although the destination is home to vibrant industrial, commercial, and business activity, Central Asia is not forgetting its nomadic routes.
“All parts of Central Asia are different with various cultural, natural and historical differences,” marketing communication manager, The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, Ayuna Koukshinova told TTG. “For example, Almaty has become more of a business destination rather than a tourist one. We see travellers from CIS countries who would like to discover Kazakhstan in its natural richness for themselves, but despite the beautiful landscapes and ski resorts, there is still a larger number of business travellers.”
Echoing this sentiment, advertisement and marketing manager, InterContinental Almaty, Rinat Kurbanov told TTG: “The most popular emerging trends in the Kazakh tourism industry are business travellers, eco-tourism, extreme tourism, sport tourism, historical tourism, shopping and religious tours.”
OFF -THE-BEATEN TRACK
While 2015 saw the exponential rise of experiential tourism, the travel trends for 2016 are all about escapism to off-the-beaten track destinations and authenticity. Emerging destinations such as the countries that make up the Central Asia region are extremely well placed to take advantage of this trend, with far-flung spots and fledgling urban hubs of great interest and vast natural beauty.
“Kazakhstan is a unique country in the midst of both Europe and Asia,” said Koukshinova. “Kazakhstan is the fastest developing country in terms of business and modern culture. Its wilderness and nature are the main attractions: the Charyn canyon and the many mountain ranges and hunting are amazing. The mountains surrounding Almaty are equipped with international-standard resorts and are very attractive for skiing in the winter.”
While the off-the-beaten track angle of the region’s tourism appeal is evident in the markets that travel to Central Asia, hotels in the region also see a significant portion of business coming from local and regional events such as the Winter Universiade in 2017 in Almaty and the major Expo 2017 event in Astana, which will attract visitors from all over of the world.
“Both events create an opportunity to exhibit that Kazakhstan has everything and more, to break into the list of top tourist destinations: not only a strategy, but a developing service sector and infrastructure, a safe environment and visa-free regime for many countries and upcoming international events,” Koukshinova told TTG.
MODERNISATION AND DEVELOPMENT
Despite its allure as an off-the-beaten track destination offering the increasingly rare element of authenticity, Central Asia is currently in a major expansion and development phase with a number of major hotel groups looking to claim their stake in the region.
At the recently concluded Arabian Hotels International Conference (AHIC), Meliá Hotels International announced plans to open its first property in Kazakhstan in 2018. The 250-room Melia Almaty is set to be a corporate and congress tourism property in the country’s former capital and biggest city. Director of expansion, Meliá Hotels International, Maria Zarraluqui commented: “Meliá Almaty is our long-awaited first hotel in Kazakhstan. We feel Meliá Hotels & Resorts is the right product and the right brand for this city, which will play a key role in the powerful growth of it.”
Kazakhstan is also set to welcome a Sheraton Hotel in September this year, with the opening of Sheraton Aktobe Hotel, located in convenient proximity to museums, bazaars and shopping centres. The property will offer upscale accommodations, facilities and event venues.
Also boosting the destination’s luxury hotel portfolio, the St. Regis brand is due to launch a new hotel in the capital city of Astana in March 2017. The St. Regis Astana and The Residences has ambitious plans to become the best address is the capital and will underscore Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ strategy to open the best hotels in emerging markets. Starwood is expanding its presence across the region with 11 new hotels expected to open by the end of 2017, including Sheraton Dushanbe in Tajikistan.
Indeed, Kazakhstan is not alone in its development frenzy, with the government of Uzbekistan also planning to realise measures on developing hotel infrastructure in the country by 2020. According to the programme, Uzbekistan plans to build 50 hotels, 30 camp sites and 20 pansiyons by 2020, in a bid to develop both urban and rural areas and encourage the growth of agriculture tourism.
The hotel sector is not alone in its endeavour to improve tourism infrastructure in Central Asia, with the aviation industry working hard to keep up the pace of development across the region. Leading the pack, Air Astana has implemented a number of new innovations including plans to introduce broadband in-flight connectivity following an agreement recently signed with air transport IT provider, Rockwell Collins. The national carrier is set to install the associated Inmarsat Global Xpress (GX) high speed connectivity system on its fleet of Boeing 767 airliners commencing in September 2016 making it one of the world’s first airlines to go operational with the GX system.
“As a customer orientated airline, Air Astana is always looking to improve the passenger experience on the ground and in the air,” said commercial engineer manager, Air Astana, Andrey Gulev. Using their own devices passengers will be able to surf the Internet, use various instant messenger applications and check e-mails.
Uzbekistan Airways has also been busy recently with an additional flight launched from Tashkent to New York via Riga four times a week and an additional flight to Seoul in Korea. In June this year the national carrier of Uzbekistan is also planning to begin new regular flights to Voronezh in the Russian Federation.
While Central Asia might still be considered an emerging destination on the global tourism scene, the region is making huge efforts to enhance its product.